Snails in garlic - just the thing for life in the slow lane

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TODAY - our second extract from the futuristic tale Travellers '94.

WHEN Tom had been a rising Tory MP and junior minister, he told everyone he had a large estate in the West Country. And it was true. The estate was called Thimbledown Hall, somewhere between Wells and Bath. A year later he was a bankrupt ex-Lloyd's name and no longer an MP, but he could still claim to have a large estate in the West Country. Now, however, it was the old rusty Ford Sierra estate in which he lived and drove at up to 10mph, along with the other 200 vehicles in the travellers' convoy, which was restricted to people who had been ruined by Lloyd's.

(There was a chap one day who had tried to join them in his old Saab 500, but it was in suspiciously good nick. It turned out he wasn't a Lloyd's victim at all, but a man who had been accidentally made bankrupt by clerical overcharging at NatWest. He was chucked out of the convoy immediately. Yes, even in what the tabloids had taken to calling the 'Lloyd's Louts', they had to keep standards up.)

'Bit different from the old life, eh, Tom?' said the driver of the van behind, in one of their frequent stops. 'Totally different, what?'

Ben had owned a Bond Street art gallery before his painful exit from Lloyd's, and had once sold Tom a painting for pounds 70,000. It still hung in Thimbledown Hall. At least, Tom supposed it still hung there, unless his wife had thrown it out, the way she had thrown him out.

'You're absolutely wrong, Ben,' said Tom. 'Nothing's changed. I spent most mornings and evenings in London stuck in a barely moving traffic convoy breathing in poisonous fumes. Now here we are in Somerset, doing exactly the same.'

'But at least we haven't anywhere important to get to,' said Ben, determinedly cheerful. Tom thought of how he had usually been stuck in a traffic jam on his way to the House of Commons, which meant he hadn't anywhere important to get to then, either, but said nothing.

'Incidentally,' said Ben, 'your Ford Sierra's a bit dull inside, Ever thought of brightening it up?'

'Don't tell me you're still flogging paintings]' said Tom.

'Not at all,' said Ben, a bit hurt. 'I've got an old poster that . . .'

'Madonna poster?' said Tom sarcastically. 'Eric Clapton?'

'John Major,' said Ben. 'We've been using it as a dartboard, but it's still in nice nick.'

It was months since Tom had thought of John Major. After the retirement of all the Tory MPs involved in Lloyd's, and the Christchurch by-election, Major's majority hadn't looked too good. In fact, he hadn't got one. When Tom left politics, John Major had been trying to tempt Paddy Ashdown into a coalition. Tom had never heard what happened next, and didn't want to know. People such as Mr Major weren't interested in travelling people, and vice versa.

A police helicopter flew overhead and vanished. The aroma of cooking came down the line. Somebody was having snails in garlic for lunch, from the smell of it. Old habits died hard, especially when snails became more available. A chap in a muddy Land Rover drove up and stopped.

'Any chance of joining you lot?' he asked cheerfully.

'You'll have to talk to the selection committee,' said Tom. 'Top of the convoy, red bus marked 'Members' Enclosure'.'

'Thanks,' he said, and drove on.

'You weren't very welcoming,' said Ben.

'Have to be careful these days,' said Tom. 'Word's around that the police are anxious to infiltrate us. Send in a few undercover agents.'

'But why on earth . . ?'

'This isn't an ordinary convoy. We are supposed to be potentially dangerous. We are all leadership calibre, plotting and planning, that sort of thing. Kind of people who can out-manoeuvre the police.'

'How ridiculous,' said Ben. 'We are the kind of people who helped to run Mr Major's government. They must know we're incapable.'

They both laughed. Then Ben pointed.

'Nice place in there. Wonder whose it is?'

Through the trees stretched a tidy vista of parkland, up to a distant house. On the lawn they could just see a mother and two children playing and laughing. It looked idyllic. Tom felt his throat tighten.

'Mine,' he said softly. 'Or it was, till last year.'

Far away, his children pointed at the convoy. He almost waved back at them . . .